Fathom Mag

Love, not fear, remains.

You can still seek the welfare of your neighbors.

Published on:
April 13, 2020
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6 min.
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On a recent week when Americans absorbed waves of increasingly dire news about COVID-19, I stood before a four-hundred-year-old live oak tree. Located just south of Charleston, South Carolina, the “Angel Oak’s” thick trunk supports a canopy of winding branches stretching sixty-five feet into the air and covering an area of over 17,000 square feet. The tree is spectacular to behold, but the age of the tree is its most impressive feature. When the Angel Oak was a germinating acorn, pilgrims were boarding the Mayflower to begin their journey to the New World.

Without more context and instruction, though, I can’t help but wonder how the exhortation not to fear is actually heard and understood in this anxious moment. What are we to not fear? What kind of fear are we called to reject?

As I traced the tree’s long, gnarled branches, the phone in my pocket buzzed with breaking news related to COVID-19. I redirected my wavering attention to the live oak standing before me and thought of all the world history that has come and gone while that tree has been standing: the rising and falling of nations, world wars, American slavery, epidemics, and much more. This pondering gave me an odd feeling of peace about COVID-19. As devastating as the disease’s spread may be and as disruptive as society’s response, we should not fear; it will one day pass.

In the COVID-19 era, “do not fear” has become a common exhortation espoused by politicians, community leaders, and Christian commentators. Without more context and instruction, though, I can’t help but wonder how this exhortation is actually heard and understood in this anxious moment. What are we to not fear? What kind of fear are we called to reject?

One possible interpretation of “do not fear” is: “Don’t fear the erosion of your income or retirement accounts or disruptions to your daily life, everything will all go back to normal; just hunker down, catch up on Netflix, and wait it out.” Such an interpretation reinforces attention to individual circumstances and personal comforts. It conditions our hope for the future on the eventual resumption of a self-oriented life that finds security in material things and personalized comforts. Living with such a mindset drives us to avoid the sacrificial steps necessary to promote the common good or to address the needs of neighbors amid authentic distress.

What, then, might a more full and faithful exhortation to refrain from fear look like in this moment?

Faithfulness that Casts out Fear

For people of Christian faith, the authentic exhortation against fear is a solemn one, rooted in God’s faithfulness to us in spite of our absorption with self. Trying circumstances and eroding comforts, when they come, do not indicate a faltering of God’s steadfast faithfulness to us. Therefore, we can reject fear and, free of it, love our neighbors well.

The early church showed how the faithful rejection of fear can enable self-sacrificial and practical expressions of love for neighbors in need. In 165 AD, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. For a span of fifteen years, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the empire died of disease (later thought to be smallpox). In 251 AD, a second epidemic emerged. At the height of the second epidemic (thought to be measles), five thousand people died every day in Rome alone—possibly more in more remote areas.[1]

It is hard for us to comprehend the horror and scale of these epidemics. One historian wrote:[2]

“The forward march of Roman power and world organization was interrupted by the only force against which political genius and military valor were utterly helpless—epidemic disease . . . and when it came, as though carried by storm clouds, all things gave way, and men crouched in terror, abandoning all their quarrels, undertakings, and ambitions, until the tempest had blown over.”

How did people in the early church respond under these circumstances? Surely, they admonished one another not to fear. But what did freedom from fear enable them to do? How did they act as those rejecting fear in the face of the mysterious and deadly epidemics of their day?

According to a letter from Dionysius in 260 AD[3], reflecting on the actions of local Christians,

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead . . . The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the results of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”

This was not a one-time faithful response to epidemic disease. As Rodney Stark wrote, “Christian values of love and charity had, from the beginning [of the early church], been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity.”[4] The consistent efforts of the early church contributed to the building of institutions like hospitals and food shelters that now characterize modern society. 

In the COVID-19 era, we need to care for ourselves and our families and friends. We need to minister to those most susceptible to the health effects of COVID-19 in ways that do not carry illness to the most vulnerable. But that is not all we are called to do. As we are able, our personal and collective provision of help can be directed to our neighbors who are most harmed when economic and other institutions falter and societal routines are disrupted. 

Thinking of One Another

The health effects and deaths from COVID-19 will be widely felt. And the economic fallout from COVID-19 will be profound, widespread, and long-lasting. Thousands have already lost their jobs. Businesses are shuttering. While the government is offering some financial assistance, many individuals and families will still suffer long-lasting hardship and tremendous stress.

Rejecting fear of disease and our own personal misfortunes, we need eyes that see and hearts willing to serve.

Encouraged by the fearless actions of the early church, how can we seek the welfare and flourishing of our own community through practical acts of grace and kindness to our neighbors in need? How can we protect the weak and lift up the vulnerable in this moment? Rejecting fear of disease and our own personal misfortunes, we need eyes that see and hearts willing to serve. 

Every day, I see encouraging signs. People are raising money to support people whose small businesses were forced to temporarily close. Health care workers on the front lines of the epidemic are being appreciated and applauded. Citizens are volunteering to deliver meals to poor school children confined to their homes. Volunteers are finding creative ways to make protective equipment for nurses and doctors. Landlords are reaching out to tenants to delay rent payments they are owed. In this season of distress, people are helping one another. Can we do even more on a bigger scale and for a long time?

A local farmer friend derives his income from selling produce to local restaurants. Due to the pandemic, the restaurants have now scaled back operations and cut food orders. Our community recruited friends, co-workers, and relatives to purchase what will soon be acres of surplus produce. This will help our farmer neighbor maintain his income this season. In turn, he is donating a steady supply of the vegetables to several dozen unemployed restaurant workers in the community from now until the end of harvest. 

Lack of fear enabled the early church to tend to the needs of the sick and dying. In the present COVID-19 era, lack of fear has enabled my little community to see that one farmer’s problem is the whole community’s problem. It’s not going to alleviate all suffering. But it’s something, and I find it inspiring. Neighborly affection is contagious; supporting the farmer in turn enabled generosity to flow to people suddenly out of work and living without a paycheck.

It’s not going to alleviate all suffering. But it’s something, and I find it inspiring.

These are tiny glimpses of what Wendell Berry calls “membership”—people rooted in local communities caring for and acting in accord with the welfare of others, holding each other in a kind of reverent affection. 

Love, Not Fear, Remains

One day, the Angel Oak will die, and its massive branches will fall to the ground, becoming dust. But God’s love will remain. We shall not fear. 

When the pandemic no longer dominates the world’s headlines, we will settle back into familiar rhythms. We will also emerge from this collective experience transformed. This present moment of disruption, disease, and death has revealed much to a proud world of its own fragility. My hope is for a reshaping of neighborly consciousness on a global scale that stretches across time. Yet if that be too ambitious, I’ll settle for the quiet transformation of my own heart. May God form in me and in us an everlasting compassion for our neighbors in need, especially those whose underlying vulnerabilities this pandemic will have shined an especially bright light.

Aaron McKethan
Aaron and his family live in Durham, NC. He is a professor and entrepreneur. Connect with him on Twitter @a_mckethan.

Cover image by Mega Caesaria.

[1] Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity. New York: Harper One (1996).

[2] Hans Zinsser, (1934), 1960:100 as quoted by Stark 74.

[3] Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity. New York: Harper One (1996).

[4] Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity. New York: Harper One (1996).

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